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Mass Transit

Mass transit

Mass transit systems transport large numbers of people simultaneously in single vehicles. Examples of mass transit systems include buses, ferries, rapid rail, light rail, commuter rail and intercity rail systems. Although popular before the age of the automobile , mass transit systems have become marginal transportation modes in many cities in the United States. Recently however, as the negative impacts of automobile use have become of greater public concern, a renewed interest in encouraging mass transit has emerged. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 explicitly allocated funds toward improving mass transit systems.

Transportation congestion is worsening in the United States. In addition to the opportunity costs of time associated with traffic congestion, there are environmental costs associated with automobile use: emission of greenhouse gases , air pollution , noise pollution , and increased suburban sprawl and land use . Other social costs include increased probability of traffic accidents, increased occurrence of stress-related disorders, and increased social severance. Yet in most cities, people seem to be unwilling to use alternative modes of transportation, such as public transit, carpooling, or bicycling, which might impose lower environmental and time costs on society. Nationally, the automobile occupancy rate during commute hours was 1.1 in 1990. Trends indicate the situation will worsen over time.

The social costs associated with automobile use, including environmental pollution , congestion, accidents and public health effects, are known in the economics literature as "externalities." These are costs associated with automobile use that are not borne directly by the individuals making the decisions to use their automobiles. Although everyone experiences the negative effects of air pollution, and all drivers experience the negative effects of congestion, each individual driver only experiences a fraction of the total social cost produced when he or she drives. When a driver makes the decision about whether or not to drive an automobile, the full costs of driving are not taken into account. The result is that too many commuters choose to drive, and the social costs far outweigh the private benefits associated with the existing level of driving.

The solution from an economic standpoint is to force drivers to "internalize the externalities" or bear the full cost of their driving. This can be done through policy tools such as congestion pricing or gasoline taxes, both of which discourage driving. An alternative solution to the inefficiency is to encourage more use of mass transit by making mass transit less costly to commuters. Many people believe driving is more safe, comfortable, and convenient than mass transit. In order to compete with automobile use, mass transit must either be less expensive than automobiles or more attractive in amenities.

A commonly-held misconception about mass transit is that it must pay for itself. Mass transit is a public good that benefits all commuters, including those who use mass transit and those driving who enjoy less-congested roads and less-polluted communities. Because benefits are received by both users and non-users, it makes sense for the public sector to be subsidizing mass transit. In fact, because the external benefits of mass transit are difficult to quantify, it is unclear how much subsidization of mass transit is optimal. More subsidization creates lower transit fares and a more convenient system which encourages more riders; both riders and non-riders benefit from this.

In order to be an effective solution to the transportation problem, mass transit should satisfy several criteria. It should be cost-effective and less polluting per passenger mile than automobile use. Its public benefits should outweigh the public costs of operating the system. Investment in mass transit is only worthwhile if it will cause a significant number of people to switch to transit from using automobiles. National statistics show the number of vehicle occupants moving closer to one over time, demonstrating the high value the general public seems to place on driving their cars. Alternative modes such as mass transit must be competitive with automobiles in order to cause a decrease in automobile usage and a subsequent improvement in the environment .

Mass transit systems have significant environmental benefits, including substantial reductions in greenhouse gases, energy consumption and traffic congestion, provided enough commuters switch to using it. A fully occupied train can remove 100 cars from the road during rush hour, a bus forty, and a vanpool thirteen. Associated energy savings can be around 4060%, and cleaner fuels can reduce emissions even further. Mass transit systems in different ways. Park and ride systems for example, are much less environmentally friendly than transit-only options. During the first few miles of an automobile trip, emissions and fuel use are very high, due to the cold start. In a 10-mile trip for example, 90% of emissions are produced in the first few miles. Although they offer fewer environmental benefits than full transit systems, they still decrease traffic congestion and accidents.

Not every city in the United States is suited for mass transit systems. Large cities such as New York City and Washington, D.C. have the density of people and businesses necessary to make the systems viable, and mass transit systems are heavily used. Many cities have grown in a sprawling manner, due mainly to the dominance of the automobile, so that the density of the population makes good mass transit infeasible. On the other hand, if a good mass transit system were in place, one could envision the development of business and residential hubs around the transit system which would eventually increase population density and ridership. An addition to the above-mentioned benefits of mass transit, the revitalization of downtowns, many of which have deteriorated with the growth of the suburbs, might occur as development adapts to improved mass transit systems.

Future technological developments might improve the attractiveness of mass transit relative to automobile use. Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS) refer to the application of advanced technologies, especially communications technologies, to improve the efficiency of the nation's surface transportation system. Potential outcomes of this endeavor include the creation and implementation of "smart cars," "smart transit," and "smart streets."

A great deal of IVHS is devoted to improving the efficiency of automobile transportation. IVHS might offer traffic signal timing and smart car technology which would reduce congestion and traffic accidents. These technologies will make automobile use more convenient and safe than before, encouraging more automobile travel. On the other hand, IVHS offers the possibility of implementing a congestion pricing system where automobile users pay a fee when using certain roads at congested times. This cost would make transit more competitive relative to automobiles during heavy commute hours.

Certain components of IVHS might improve convenience to make mass transit more competitive with automobiles. A component of IVHS is the development of communications systems controlling traffic patterns and flows on streets and highways. These systems can be used in conjunction with HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes to make transit systems more competitive in travel time. Also, computerized fare-collection devices speed transit boarding, a time-consuming aspect of present transit travel. These technologies make transit and ridesharing more convenient and attractive to commuters, increasing transit use relative to individual vehicle use.

IVHS could encourage or discourage mass transit use. For planning purposes, it is important to consider the implications of the different components of IVHS to the future of mass transit systems. The benefits associated with increased mass transit use are generally public as opposed to private. Yet, the individual decision about which transportation mode to use is a private decision. Increasing mass transit use requires the development of attractive, competitive mass transit systems that are a convenient, safe, and comfortable option to automobile travel. Improved mass transit in these ways should pay off in terms of an improved environment and quality of life.

See also Environmental economics; Externality; Urban sprawl

[Barbara J. Kanninen ]



Brown, Lester R., ed. The World Watch Reader on Global Environmental Issues. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991.

Gordon, Deborah. Steering a New Course: Transportation, Energy, and the Environment. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1991.

Small, Kenneth A. Urban Transportation Economics. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1992.

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